The insects of Outside Island were in full voice as Percy lay on a pile of soft grasses on the floor of his hut and wallowed in regret for the way his life had turned out. The air was thick and cool and moonlight eased its way in through gaps in the thatched roof. Percy was naked beneath a blanket he had stitched together from the enormous leaves of a tropical plant that he couldn’t name. All the trappings of sleep were present: it was night , Percy was in bed, he felt tired, but sleep was still far away and perhaps not coming at all tonight. So with nothing else to divert him and being too mentally weak to force his mind elsewhere, Percy thought about the people he’d wronged and the blunders he’d made that had allowed him to get caught, tried, convicted, and flown via helicopter to Outside Island to live out the rest of his days in primitive squalor with a sorry lot of similarly good-for-nothing criminals. There were over a hundred convicts serving out life sentences on Outside Island, but with fifteen square miles to lose one’s self in, it was easy to avoid company. At first, most of the new arrivals would stick together, but over time, the men tended to spread out and lead quiet, solitary lives. There were no guards on Outside Island or overseers of any kind. The residents of Outside Island had been removed from society and whatever happened to them after that was their business.
Percy sat up on his grass pile and looked around his hut at his few possessions. There was a stool he’d made out of a stump, a club he’d made out of a branch, a pair of pants he’d made out of the remnants of the four pairs of pants the prison system had issued him when he had been sent to the island six years before. In addition to everything else, he was embarrassed that his craftsmanship had not improved more than it had during his time on Outside Island. He had just decided to go poke around in his garden patch for some green beans when he heard footsteps approaching on the path outside.
“Hello?” called Percy. “Who’s there?” He slipped out from under his blanket and wrapped his fingers around the handle of his club. Though the prisoners on Outside Island lived in relative peace with each other, it was good to remain mindful of the fact that most of them were here due to at least one violent outburst or period of sociopathic behavior in their pasts.
Percy stood with his back against the wall just inside of his doorway, ready to smash whoever came through the door in the face with his club when he heard a voice outside whisper, “Percy, it’s me, Harold. We need to talk.”
Percy let out his held breath and opened the stick-and-vine door for Harold.
“Why are you here so late?” asked Percy. “What’s going on?”
With a gray beard that climbed up his cheeks almost to his eyes and wearing only a pair of jeans that he had cut into increasingly shorter shorts, Harold stepped into Percy’s hut and closed the door. Then he turned to Percy and said, “Escape!”
Percy filled his cheeks with air and let it out slowly through his nose.
“I know you don’t believe me,” said Harold. “But we’ve got a real chance.”
“I’d be willing to bet we don’t,” said Percy, pulling on his pants as gently as possible to avoid damaging them.
“But listen,” said Harold. “You know Graham, right? Got here a few months ago?”
“Yeah,” said Percy. “Little guy, no teeth.”
“Right,” said Harold with a mischievous gleam in his eye, a flake of moonlight glinting off of his front teeth. “Well, do you know who he really is?”
“No,” said Percy. “I don’t know who anyone really is.”
Harold could barely contain his excitement as he lowered his voice further and said, “He’s the Gory Otter. The Gory Otter, Percy.”
Percy gave Harold a blank look. “I don’t know who that is.”
Harold stared at Percy as if he was being willfully difficult. “The Gory Otter. The Gory Otter?”
“Say it again,” said Percy. “I’m sure I’ll understand this time.”
“He’s a renowned pirate,” said Harold. “But the authorities don’t even know who they captured. They caught him in connection with a group trying to topple the government, which was actually just a sort of side hobby for him. Had they known they had the Gory Otter in their clutches, they would not have sent him to Outside Island, I can assure you of that!”
“Why not?” asked Percy. He knew his questions were frustrating Harold, but he was not in the mood to make the kind of logical deductions Harold seemed to want from him.
“Because,” said Harold. “The Gory Otter is a master of watercraft. If we build a raft, he can pilot us back to the mainland!”
“But the reefs,” said Percy. “The currents, the rocks, the tides, the storms.”
“Exactly,” said Harold. “There’s only one man in the world who could pilot a raft back to the mainland from Outside Island.”
“Who?” asked Percy. He was willing to admit to himself that he was trying to irritate Harold now.
“The Gory Otter!”
“Oh, you mean Graham?”
“Are you in or not?” asked Harold, opening the door and stepping outside.
“Sure I’m in,” said Percy. “For as far as it goes.”
“We’re going all the way,” said Harold. “We’re meeting in the Little Cave at sunset tomorrow. Don’t tell anyone. And don’t call the Gory Otter by that name at the meeting. Call him Graham.”
“I’ll try to remember,” said Percy.
Harold turned and jogged away down the path, disappearing into the jungle.
Percy wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting, but the Gory Otter’s plan was not complicated. Percy, Harold, and Graham crouched just inside the entrance to the Little Cave as the last sliver of the sun rested momentarily on the edge of the horizon.
“So,” said Harold. “We’ll build a raft according to your specifications and then you’ll pilot it back to the mainland.”
“Yep,” said Graham. “I’d help with the construction more but I have a bad back.” He was wearing a pouch with an upside down crown dyed on the front of it around his neck on a string and he kept dipping his hand inside and pulling out wild blackberries which he gummed so that the juice ran down into his patchy beard. Percy didn’t understand why such a successful pirate didn’t have a set of false teeth, but then again, no one on Outside Island was making much of an effort to maintain a high standard of living.
Graham looked hard at Percy and said, “Are you a good builder?”
“No,” said Percy. “Not at all.”
Graham frowned. “Then why are you here?”
Percy shrugged. “Harold invited me.”
Graham turned his accusing gaze to Harold.
“Provisions,” said Harold. “I’ll do all the building, but Percy’s got a garden and he knows how to make dried fruit. He grows nuts too. We’ll be glad to have it on the raft. I invited him because he’s trustworthy.”
“What’re you trusting me to do?” asked Percy.
“Stick to a plan,” said Graham. “Stockpile provisions. And keep it quiet.”
“I guess I can do that,” said Percy. “It sounds easy. And every plan like this needs a skeptic to keep everything in perspective.”
“We won’t be needing that,” said Harold.
“One other thing we will be needing,” said Graham. “Is a contact on the mainland. Someone waiting with a place for us to stay and hide for a while. Someone trustworthy who knows we’re coming. It won’t be any good if we make it all the way to the mainland only to get captured again and sent back.”
“I know someone here who can communicate with the mainland,” said Percy. “Kind of.”
“I see where you’re going with this,” said Harold. “And I vote ‘no.’”
“What?” said Graham. “Are you talking about the seagull guy?”
“Gerard, yes,” said Percy. “He might be able to send word to someone.”
“The seagull guy would not be my first choice,” said Graham. “Why do you think he can help us? Do you mean with the seagull?”
“Well, yeah,” said Percy. “It brings him newspapers and straight razors but someone on the mainland must be supplying it.”
“Just what we need,” said Harold. “Newspapers and straight razors.”
“I know he’s annoying, but I think there’s a chance he could help,” said Percy. “I’ll vouch for him.”
“You’re putting your good name on the line for Gerard,” said Harold. “Just think about that.”
“You just said I was trustworthy,” said Percy.
“That’s true,” said Graham. “You did say that, Harold.” He rose to his feet. “Fine, Percy, you talk to Gerard and find out if he’s capable and willing to help. If he is, we’ll bring him into the plan. For now, Harold will start building the raft.”
“Meeting adjourned,” said Harold, standing up and brushing his hands together as if he’d just finished a dirty job.
“Remember to keep quiet about this,” said Graham. “Stress that to Gerard.” He dumped the last of the berries from his pouch into his open mouth and crept off through the underbrush.
Harold turned Percy. “I vouched for you, Percy. And now you vouched for Gerard. So if he makes you look bad, then you make me look bad. See how that works?”
“How can we look bad if everything’s secret?” asked Percy. “There’s no one looking.”
“Just make absolutely sure that Gerard doesn’t screw up, OK?”
“I will,” said Percy. “I’ll do my best.” He had no faith in his own ability to prevent Gerard from screwing up, but the Gory Otter, if anyone really called him that, hadn’t impressed him much and he knew Harold too well to expect much from him. The escape plan was likely little more than another activity that could, with a little suspension of disbelief, divert them all from despair and remorse for a week or two. And Percy was fine with that.
Percy found Gerard shaving by memory in the doorway to his hut. He kept crouching to dip and rinse his razor in a saucer-shaped leaf filled with water that was sitting next to him on the ground. Gerard’s supply of straight razors carried to him from the mainland by the trained seagull allowed him to be the only man on the island without a beard. As far as Percy knew, anyway. Gerard was tall with squared off shoulders and he had tattooed intricate doodles all over both of his legs from the knees down using materials he’d found in the jungle. Gerard’s seagull sat in a cage hanging from a hook on the front door of the hut and croaked softly, ruffling its dirty feathers. When Percy explained the plan to Gerard and asked him if he would participate, Gerard agreed immediately.
“How soon can you send word to the mainland?” asked Percy.
“It’s already done,” said Gerard, running his fingers over his face to make sure he hadn’t missed a spot.
“How could it already be done?” asked Percy. “I just told you about it. And the seagull’s right there.”
Gerard winked and wrapped his razor in an old scrap of newspaper. “It’s just an expression that means I’ll do it really soon.”
“It’s already done,” said Gerard.
“Listen, Gerard. I don’t really care one way or the other, but I told Graham and Harold you were reliable and Harold’s gonna be all over my back until you send word to the mainland.”
“Understood,” said Gerard. He went into his hut and came back with a rickety bamboo chair in his hands and his most recent issue of the newspaper from the mainland tucked under his arm. He sat down in the chair and opened the paper to the entertainment section to read movie reviews. He preferred to read unfavorable reviews because they made him feel like he wasn’t missing much.
“So I can go ahead and tell Harold and Graham you’re on it?”
“Tell them it’s already done,” said Gerard.
The raft took shape quickly. Harold’s desire to escape Outside Island drove him to work feverishly, searching out suitable logs, gathering them up, and lashing them together late into the night. Graham was pleased with his progress and even Percy was forced to admit that the raft looked impressive, though perhaps a little small to accommodate four people.
“Maneuverability is the key,” said Graham. “Comfort is secondary.” All four of the conspirators stood around the raft and admired the skill with which Harold had realized Graham’s design. The raft had been built at the edge of an infrequently visited part of the jungle at the top of a smooth, rocky hill that sloped down to a calm inlet. Once it was time to launch, it would just be a matter of pushing the raft out of the jungle and controlling its slide into the water.
“Gerard, have you heard from the mainland yet?” asked Harold.
Gerard smiled and looked up at the sky as if expecting his seagull that very instant. “I’ll tell you as soon as I do.”
“Because I did my job,” said Harold, pointing at the raft. “We can all see that I earned my place on the raft. And Percy, he’s stockpiling dried fruit and nuts. He’s earning his place. And Graham, well, he’s the Gory Otter, he’s the mastermind. But how do we know you’re doing anything?”
Gerard made a dismissive gesture with his hands and said, “I guess you’ll just have to trust me.”
Harold fixed a murderous glare on Gerard.
Gerard absorbed it with a chuckle and said, “Boy, I’m gonna need an escape after this escape.”
No one else laughed.
After Gerard left, Harold pulled Percy aside while Graham inspected the underside of the raft for potential rupture points.
“You have to talk to Gerard,” said Harold. “You have to make him see how important this is.”
“You know how he is,” said Percy. “I can’t get through to him.”
“I don’t think you’ve really tried,” said Harold. “You’ve been down on this escape since day one, always naysaying.”
“I want to escape,” said Percy. “I’m coming around on the plan. The raft looks pretty convincing and Graham seems confident.”
“He’s a born leader,” said Harold. “The Gory Otter’s confidence instills confidence in others. But sticking by Gerard is making you look bad which makes me look bad which makes The Gory Otter look bad for trusting me. And that I cannot stand for. I can’t stand the thought of the Gory Otter’s reputation taking a hit because he aligned himself with me who aligned myself with you who aligned yourself with Gerard. The thought makes me want to cry.”
“All right, calm down,” said Percy. “We don’t know for sure that Gerard hasn’t sent word to the mainland. I’ll do my best to make sure one way or the other, OK?”
As Percy left Harold and Graham talking quietly by the raft, the Gory Otter watched him go with an expression that Percy hoped was not disappointment.
Gerard, squatting by a small fire outside his hut, broke into a grin when Percy walked up and greeted him.
“Gerard,” said Percy. “We really need to know…
“The message came,” interrupted Gerard. “From the mainland.”
“When?” asked Percy. He was skeptical.
“Just now,” said Gerard. “I just finished committing it to memory and burning it.”
“Where’s the seagull?” Percy nodded his head at the empty cage hanging on the door.
“I sent her to get some food and rest in a quieter part of the island,” said Gerard. “She was exhausted.”
“What did the message say?” asked Percy. “What are our instructions?”
“We’re to come ashore on the beach just to the south of the port town of Hondelle. My contact will have made three signal fires there and he’ll be waiting for us with new clothes and fresh water.”
“Hmm,” said Percy. “How does your contact know what day we’ll be there?”
“He’s going to camp on the beach every night until we arrive. He’s living on my money, so it’s the least he can do for us.”
“What’s his name?” asked Percy.
“Junior,” said Gerard with a smile.
“Is he your son?” asked Percy.
“I don’t think so,” said Gerard, adding another handful of twigs to the fire.
“I’ll tell Harold and Graham,” said Percy. “I’m sure they’ll be excited.” He didn’t believe Gerard at all, not one word of it, but he was tired of having nothing to report, tired of Graham’s impatient sighs and Harold’s angry insistence that Gerard was making them all look bad. He would simply convey Gerard’s message to them and then whatever would happen would happen and if somebody ended up looking bad along the way, then so be it.
Percy had expected some doubt from Harold and Graham, but Graham was thrilled by the news of Gerard’s message from the mainland and Harold, as usual, took his cues from Graham.
“How soon can we leave?” asked Harold. “Are the conditions right?”
“The conditions are almost right,” said Graham. “They’ll be perfect sometime within the week. We should load the provisions onto the raft tonight so we can launch at a moment’s notice.”
“So soon?” asked Percy.
“Why hesitate?” asked Graham.
“Yeah, why hesitate?” asked Harold. “Do you want to spend any more time here than you have to? Got get the nuts and dried fruit!”
For the first time since Harold had proposed the plan to him, Percy felt real excitement about escaping. As he hurried back to his hut to gather the nuts and dried fruit into a basket Harold had loaned him, he tried to decide if he would dedicate himself to seeking forgiveness or revenge once he got back to the mainland. It was a thrilling quandary.
The next day, Gerard’s seagull was dead. Someone had wrung its neck in the night and left its limp, dingy body crumpled in the bottom of the cage hanging on Gerard’s door.
“You didn’t hear anything?” asked Graham.
Percy felt bad for Gerard and even Harold looked somber, although Gerard himself didn’t seem that broken up about it.
“No, I didn’t hear anything,” said Gerard, the dead seagull dangling from his hand by one leg. “I was dreaming about breaking and entering.” He smiled with pleasure at the memory.
“This is a message from someone,” said Graham. “Everyone stay away from the raft until you hear from me that the conditions are perfect.”
“Aye-Aye, sir” said Harold without a hint of irony.
“I guess I’ll be able to get my straight razors and newspapers myself once we’re back on the mainland,” said Gerard, and he tossed the dead bird’s body into the undergrowth.
The following day, Harold woke Percy in a panic.
“Graham’s not in his hut!”
Percy groaned and climbed into his pants, cringing at the sound of threads straining and popping. “Maybe he’s sleeping by the raft to keep watch over it.”
“But he said not to go near it until we hear from him!” Harold was wringing his hands like an anxious child.
“We need to look to make sure he’s OK,” said Percy. “I wouldn’t be worried except for Gerard’s seagull. If he’s not by the raft, then we know it’s time to worry.”
The men went by Gerard’s hut first to ensure that they’d be at maximum strength if there was to be violence and then the three of them made their way through the jungle, stopping every hundred yards or so to listen and make sure they weren’t being followed. They heard only the squawking of tropical birds and the scurry of rodents in pursuit of fat beetles on the jungle floor.
When they arrived at their destination, not only was Graham not there, but neither was the raft. All they found were scrape marks on the rocks leading down to the water.
The three men stood at the water’s edge letting the cold waves hiss around their ankles and looked out at the flat blue ocean. There was nothing to see.
Harold was heartbroken. “He was embarrassed by us! We weren’t worthy to be the Gory Otter’s crewmen!” He turned on Percy and Gerard. “I told you we were making him look bad! And now he’s escaped by himself and left us behind.” Harold sank to his knees on the sand and crossed his arms over his face.
Percy rested his hand on the top of Harold’s head. It felt strange to him, but he hoped Harold found it comforting. “He was never going to take us with him, Harold. He conned us. The Gory Otter will probably tell Junior some story about us being washed overboard in a storm. And he killed Gerard’s seagull so we couldn’t send a word of warning ahead. ”
“Oh, I have lots of seagulls,” said Gerard.
Harold took his arms away from his face and looked up at Gerard.
“What do you mean?” asked Percy.
“I have at least a dozen trained seagulls,” said Gerard, his hands resting casually on his hips. “They take turns in the cage and I always have at least three or four in the air at the same time, coming or going. But they all look the same to you guys. And to the Gory Otter too, apparently.”
“So we can send warning?” asked Harold, rising to his feet and brushing the wet sand off of his knees. “We can tell Junior that the Gory Otter betrayed us and not to help him?”
“We could,” said Gerard, clearly very pleased with himself. “But there’s no need. Junior knows what to do if the Gory Otter arrives without me.”
The three convicts laughed and slapped each other on the back. Then they turned to walk back up into the jungle, back to their sentences, back to their never-ending debts to society.
“At least it was fun,” said Harold. “For a while.”
“All fun is fleeting,” said Percy. “But we shouldn’t hold that against it.”
A month later, Harold was teaching Percy how to make better fishing rods in Percy’s hut when Gerard came in smiling and holding a newspaper.
“What is it?” asked Percy.
“Look at this,” said Gerard. “Front page news.” He held up the newspaper in front of his chest to display the giant, bold headline for Percy and Harold to see.
The headline read: “Gory Otter Delivered Bound and Gagged to Authorities!”
Beneath the headline was a picture of Graham in handcuffs and scowling with stern law enforcement officials bunched around him on all sides, posing as if they’d all had crucial roles in capturing him.
“They found him on the courthouse steps with a note identifying him as the Gory Otter,” said Gerard, handing the newspaper to Harold. “They flew in a journalist who the Gory Otter had allowed to interview him years ago in order to confirm his identity.”
“Did you do this?” asked Percy.
“Sort of,” Gerard said. “Junior did it while acting under my instructions.”
“What’s going to happen to Graham?” asked Harold, staring at the black and white expression of doom on his former escape partner’s face.
“I know this much,” said Gerard. “He’s not going to have it as nice as we have it here.”
And the insects of Outside Island sang their agreement.